Features | Written by J.D. Gillam 21/01/2013

Interview: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska, Katharine Isabelle | AMERICAN MARY

With American Mary hitting DVD and Blu-ray, we recently got the chance to sit down and chat with the directors and star, Jen & Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle. In between talking about being wolf-whistled and Brighton nightlife, we also found time to chat about the film (of which you can read our review here)...

Starburst: Where did the idea for American Mary come from?

Sylvia Soska: Years ago, I was on the internet looking for stuff that was strange and unusual and found, although at the time I didn’t realise it was an April Fool’s prank but it was, these two identical twin brothers that did a limb swap – which is kind of akin to the twins cameo in the film – but one of them had his arm removed and grafted onto his brother’s chest plate. He then had his ring finger removed and put onto the other brother’s solo remaining arm so he had one elongated finger and the other one had three arms and there was photos and everything.

That didn’t creep me out as much as the love letter that was associated with it that said “you have to be an identical twin to understand this closeness and need with your other” and I got really scared.

Jen Soska: That’s like when you fell asleep during Dead Ringers and I asked you what you thought about it at the end and you said “I wish we died like that” and I was like “What the fuck? Are you kidding me?”

SS: I meant died together! Anyways, I got obsessed with it because my mom told me that anything that scares you is just down to a lack of education and once you learn about it you won’t be scared anymore. I got really obsessed and I would go onto the sites and message boards and pretend I was six different guys doing different procedures and everyone would be very sweet and say “Oh, do this” and “Oh, that’s infected? Do that” and I didn’t get scared anymore, I was actually really fascinated.

JS: It was never intended for a film. It was a semi-morbid fascination that we had.

SS: Years later, we were working on Dead Hooker in a Trunk, trying to get it sold and a friend asked me “Since it’s such a stuggle, why don’t you focus on another script?” I didn’t have any so I lied to him and listed everything I knew Jennifer and I could write really quickly in two weeks and he picked the one about the medical student which I thought of because of the body-mod thing.

JS: He asked to read the next one.

SS: So we wrote it in two weeks and put a lot of ourselves to it without realising it…

JS: I realised it. She didn’t realise that Mary was exactly her when we were writing back and forth and I thought “Oh, we’re going with that angle? Ok, no problem!”

SS: And that’s how it happened!

Was the dark humour deliberate?

SS / JS: Yes, absolutely.

SS: We read a lot of Stephen King which was always horror mixed with humour, so I thought horror was supposed to be funny. It’s nice playing it here because you guys get the dark humour. Sometimes I go to screenings and nobody laughs and everyone’s really upset and they get up to walk out and I say “Oh, you want me to explain the joke to you?”

JS: Horror has moments of levity in it. With Sinister, the trailer does it no justice, because it is very fucking funny. The character that is most funny isn’t even in it. I think a big problem with a lot of screenings in North America is they’ve been fine tuned to be the laugh track generation. They’re told when to laugh and what severity they’re supposed to be laughing with, like a big guffaw here and a big guffaw there. Over here, you just think for yourself, you laugh when you feel like it and you don’t laugh when you don’t feel like it. So I think that’s a huge difference in the reaction towards humour.

How have the body-modding community reacted to the film?

SS: The gentleman who plays ‘Penis Guy’ in the film, Russ Foxx, is a body modifier and he was our flesh artist consultant on the film so he made sure we didn’t do anything too incredibly offensive. There’s two things that don’t actually happen, but artistically I liked having them in the movie which was the arm swap and the heart nipples which is actually a tattoo.

They really dig it. It was really cool because whenever people contact them for any wide release of media coverage, it’s a witch-hunt. They want to look at them like they’re freaks and I think the people in the mod community in the film are the least freakish. They’re very self-aware, normal, nice people which is what I’ve found people in that community to be like.

Are you looking forward to meeting a few body-modders at tonight’s viewing?

SS: Oh shut up, no! I didn’t know! Do you know Ronnie from Poland? Ronnie bought body modification to Poland when tattooing and piercing is taboo and she has piercings, a forked tongue, tattooed eyes, horns and everything. She’s a six foot Amazon and she came to the first screening at FrightFest and you can’t miss some of these mods in the audience and I saw so many people with piercings and stretched ears. After the screening she came over and, I care what everybody thinks obviously, but the mods are my favourite, and she said “I wanted to talk to you about the film.” I asked what she thought of it and she said “A bunch of us came out and we were sitting together and we were laughing and it was actually a really good film. I think people are going to like it.”

I’m really excited to see more people!

JS: We’ve had the stretched earlobes and the tattoos, and that’s a mod, and circumcisions that I’m not aware of, but mods get something different from it. With our prosthetics in the film, you can take that stuff off but these people have made their life choices and they’re usually quite harshly judged for it.

SS: We’ve been hollered at on the street since we’ve got here. Is that normal for Brighton?


JS: We were wearing coats too! Just wait!

SS: Yeah, we’ll whore it up for tonight!

Just don’t go clubbing.

SS: Why not? You coming with us?

What’s changed for you since helming Dead Hooker in a Trunk?

SS: There was money. We never even intended to spend any money on Dead Hooker in a Trunk, $2,500 is what ended up being spent for prosthetics and food and random trucks, rentals and stuff like that. Having that experience was nice because we did every department job so we knew how a film was supposed to function. That’s said, I’m not an expert at set dec, production design, crafting or anything like that.

JS: I was pretty good at cleaning blood off of the toilet.

SS: You were a master at that!

JS: Have you seen the classic behind the scenes moment where I’m cleaning the toilet and I say “Give me the rest of the paper towels” and there’s one sheet left on the roll and there’s blood everywhere? I was like Jesus and the fish there! I just left it.

SS: You used the guys as towels. Anyways, it was weird to have the most talented people I’d ever had the pleasure of working with. One thing was that we overshot for the film that we wanted to do, we never had the time or the budget we wanted. We had a very modest budget and fifteen days to shoot it. We cut it in three weeks, we did sound in one.

JS: We were hoping for American Mary to be our opus, like ten years down the line.

SS: It was just really cool because they brought so much more, like our production designer, Tony Devenyi, with Mary’s apartment said “What if it’s red and bruised like her psyche and her personality is splattered everywhere? We could have a line of old photographs from the beginning of medicine to current times.” I was like “Yeah! Phttp! Of course, that’s exactly what we wanted it to look like.”

One of the notes we got about Dead Hooker in a Trunk was that they hated the characters, they hated the story and they hated the camerawork so we had to make that good in the next one. We got Brian Pearson to be our Director of Photography and he was just fantastic. She (Jen) storyboarded most of it and un-crumpled my storyboards because I hate everything I do and it was a big focus on making this a very beautiful movie, especially considering the subject matter because everyone thinks that body modification’s ugly.

Katharine, Mary is a very strong character. What did you enjoy most about playing the role?

Katharine Isabelle: I think it’s very rare these days to find a female character in film that is so multi-dimensional and not just the ‘bitchy girl’ or ‘the sweet girl next door’. You don’t often find young female characters that don’t have any redeeming qualities but are still somehow likeable, that are smart and determined and don’t toe the line that society expects a girl to toe. That’s a testament to the writing of these two (Jen and Sylvia). They are like that – Sylvia is Mary. They are smart, they are strong, they go a completely different path than anyone expects them to go. They don’t take shit from anybody and I think it’s rare to find a character like that in general.

I enjoyed trying to make her somewhat likeable. She had absolutely no redeeming qualities on paper and was completely unlikeable. She smiles only once during the whole movie genuinely, in the scene with Lance. I don’t know what it is. When I read it, the character struck me immediately as something I’d be blessed to have the opportunity to do and to work with these two was amazing.

Finally, if you could have one body modification done to yourself, what would it be?

JS: I’d have my penis circumcised! If I had one, who knows what I’d want to do to the little guy?

The flesh corset? I thought they were so beautiful. I think they’re usually temporary, but they’re developing permanent sub-derminal implants and my skin’s really sensitive so I’d need gold ones. So when I’m a slightly more successful filmmaker, I’ll look into getting that done. I just like the look of it, I think it’s sexy in a fucked up kind of way.

SS: For the Dr Grant scene, we had a guy come in called Harley and we tested a real suspension with him. At first we were going to do it Superman style.

JS: Like in Ichi The Killer.

SS: Yeah. Two hooks in his shoulders, two in his lower back, two hooks in his thighs and two in his lower calves. It was really cool to see because it’s a type of extreme meditation where you put yourself in a painful situation and you work through that and transcend your own body. When he did that it was really cool and it showed me that the other way wasn’t going to work for camera so I thanked him very much for doing that. They saw how much of a fan-girl I was and I carry a modification hook in my purse…

(Sylvia produces a hook from her bag)

SS: When my balls drop – not Superman style, because I’m too much of a pussy! – I want to do the shoulder suspension, not only because I want to know what that transcendence is like, but if I did it then a lot of people will be like “Well, if that little chick can do it…”

JS: Street cred!

SS: Stop pretending it’s a big freakish thing, it’s kind of cool.

KI: I don’t know. I’d get 3D implants. I don’t know enough about it to know where you could do it though. I would want some shoulder/arm ones.

SS: You could do that.

KI: I’d like some kind of fucking pattern. What do I know? I just think they’d be kind of cool. I could handle that. A little incision, a little implant. I could handle that.

JS: You could fondle them when you’re drunk or something. Like braille or a little message to yourself.

KI: Yeah.

SS: You could do scarification too.

KI: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Little implants. Scarification’s not my bag.

AMERICAN MARY will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013